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How did Berlin’s Volksbuhne end up in a state of crisis?

Brought in to shake up one of the German capital’s iconic theatres, Chris Dercon aimed to expand its remit and embrace a wider range of art forms. Following his abrupt resignation, Annegret Marten examines why his agenda proved unpopular with artists and local residents

Rapid change at the top of Berlin’s prestigious Volksbuhne theatre has gripped and puzzled the German nation. Belgian curator Chris Dercon, who only recently took over from long-time artistic director Frank Castorf, has been forced to resign from his post after only seven months, leaving one of Germany’s most influential stages without creative leadership. The list of whom to blame is embarrassingly long.

Between 1992 and 2017, Castorf and his associates had used the publicly funded building to explore experimental forms of politically charged theatre and redefined what was considered permissible on stage. Finding someone capable of grappling with its cult following and iconic legacy was always going to be challenging. Enter Dercon.

Between 2011 and 2016, Dercon headed the Tate Modern in London, significantly increasing visitor numbers for the gallery. The decision to replace Castorf with Dercon was not popular with regular Volksbuhne audiences, staff or ensemble personnel – and especially the Berlin public. Yet the quick resignation was a surprise to even his harshest critics. The reasons for the officially mutually agreed departure are deeply embedded in Berlin politics.

Back in 2015, Castorf had hoped to extend his contract but the then culture senator, social democrat Tim Renner, had other plans. Renner, a former music producer and chairman of Universal Music Germany, had long advocated for what has become known as the ‘Kreativpakt’, an agreement between players within politics, economy and the culture sector for the delivery of a substantial overhaul of working conditions within the German creative industries.

As Berlin’s culture senator, Renner’s vision for the city’s creative sector was for it to play a substantial factor in shaping city development. It seems the Volksbuhne was part of this ambition. After two and a half years of negotiation to shift the Volksbuhne’s structure and financial investment into new spaces, Renner announced Dercon as Castorf’s successor.

Chris Dercon’s season opened with an event at Tempelhof that included dance performance and a public dance warm-up with choreographer Boris Charmatz [1]
Chris Dercon’s season opened with an event at Tempelhof that included dance performance and a public dance warm-up with choreographer Boris Charmatz. Photo: Ursula Kaufmann

Key to the new directorship would be the development of a theatre representing different art forms, moving away from the established spoken-word format, and the development of Tempelhof, a former airfield in the city centre, into a venue with a capacity of 20,000.

What changed between Renner’s vision of reinvigorating Berlin by remoulding the Volksbuhne and Dercon’s premature departure? The short answer is a local election. The long answer: an unsightly public witch-hunt against Dercon in the press and public forums, an occupation of the Volksbuhne building, the airport venue proving an unaffordable pipe dream and disappointing audience numbers.

Fuelled by politicians in the run-up to the local senate elections, the threat to the theatre’s ensemble structure gave particular cause for anxiety. An open letter from staff, actors and well-known associated artists expressed concern about the long-established repertoire-theatre model. They believed it was threatened by a curated, festival-like event model, inviting more productions from free groups into the house than it produced. In addition, the relentless personal attacks on Dercon in the German press looked absurdly out of place in a climate of usually temperate cultural discourse.

Dercon and his programme director Marietta Piekenbrock never managed to communicate the merit of their vision for the stage as a laboratory for new formats, in which different art forms could meet and enrich one another. Before Dercon could start working on his first season, attempts to engage with existing audiences were blocked from various sides.

The artist-led intervention Dust to Glitter occupied the Volksbuhne just as new artistic director Chris Dercon was about to move in

A sustained effort to win over long-term Castorf associate Rene Pollesch ultimately failed. Pollesch declined invitations for fear of having his artistic freedom stifled under a more controlling artistic leadership. Then an artist-led intervention calling itself Dust to Glitter occupied the Volksbuhne just as Dercon and his team were officially due to move in. The protesters were eventually removed by the police.

When the season finally commenced and audience numbers were consistently low, post-election culture senator Klaus Lederer, of socialist party Die Linke, was quick to dispense with Dercon. With Dercon’s departure, the opportunity was lost to overturn some of the patriarchal production structures that had moved into the Volksbuhne with Castorf in the 1990s and remain prevalent nationwide.

Dercon’s programme envisioned the theatre as a democratic meeting space, reflecting the changing population of the city, but this was not a change demanded by the population itself. It was thrust upon them through political intervention and resented.

The outgoing artist director, who will still be paid until the end of the season, was not available for comment. However, at the end of April, Dercon gave his view of proceedings at a public event to discuss the systemic crises in European theatre at London’s Goethe-Institut, an organisation that champions German culture abroad.

His highly anticipated first public appearance after the sacking served as reassurance that he would be welcomed back in the UK. “I’m looking for a job!” he joked, before adding, more seriously: “There was never a plan B.”

This wholehearted commitment to his Volksbuhne vision makes dealing with the issue particularly delicate.

At the event, Dercon shrewdly analysed the ideological function of the Volksbuhne as a projection surface for an idea of Berlin that many currently see threatened.

“Castorf created a mirror,” he said. But, he continued: “Castorf was never nostalgic about the German Democratic Republic. The public, the hipsters and the nipsters, they projected much more of this image on the Volksbuhne.”

5 things you need to know about the Volksbuhne

1. Throughout the years, key German theatre makers such as Max Reinhardt, Benno Besson, Heiner Muller and Christoph Schlingensief worked at the Volksbuhne.

2. When founded in 1914, the theatre was designed to provide theatre for the working-class masses. The initial slogan above its door was ‘Kunst dem Volke’, meaning ‘art for the people’.

3. In the 1920s, during the Weimar Republic, director Erwin Piscator established the Volksbuhne as a hotbed for experimental practice.

4. During the Second World War, the theatre was heavily damaged in the bombing of Berlin.

5. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the protests of 1989, the Volksbuhne was an important space in which dissidents, artists and student protesters came together.

Citing the increasing internationalisation of the city, Dercon strongly dismissed this nostalgia: “The promises made by Berlin since 1991/92, the promises Berlin made for itself – that Berlin is over. Berlin is becoming a normal city with normal issues. Why should we be hypocritical about it?”

It is unclear who Dercon means by “we”, as he had himself recently moved to Berlin. But his brand of future-facing optimism was not shared by the locals in a city that visibly wears and sometimes consciously picks at the scars of its turbulent history.

The overheated debates seem to relate directly to the cognitive dissonances in Dercon’s argument about communities. He seems at once aware of theatre’s importance for social cohesion while simultaneously disregarding the existing community structures that the Volksbuhne space had fostered. A further problem is his contention that theatre work should support transformative progress within a redeveloping city rather than continue to examine those forces that hope to keep the city’s gentrification at bay.

The Volksbuhne was caught in the perfect storm of inconsistent political financial planning, a failure to communicate the new programme and perhaps the nostalgic refusal to accept the reality of modern Berlin. These events demonstrate that cultural spaces have a duty to join the conversation about how society is being transformed. In particular, theatre needs to engage with the question of how it shapes a city. In the UK, when new theatres pop up or when spaces are refurbished, the gentrifying impact of these changes requires critical reflection.

Dercon’s failure in Berlin is likely to discourage those in German theatre who hope to break up old structures that many see as hopelessly hierarchical and financially difficult to sustain. One such reformer, Matthias Lilienthal, is leaving his post at Munich’s Kammerspiele in 2020, after only five years. Already, several names for Dercon’s successor are being floated and the protestors who occupied the building are organising a demonstration during the city’s big theatre festival, Theatertreffen. The debate around the future of the Volksbuhne is far from over.

Profile: Volksbuhne Berlin

Interim director: Klaus Dorr
Managing director: Thomas Walter
Programme director: Marietta Piekenbrock
Founded: 1914
Theatre spaces:
Volksbuhne Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: Grosser Saal (824 seats); Roter Salon (200 seats); Gruner Salon (200 seats); 3 Stock (60 seats)

Volksbuhne Tempelhof: Capacity up to 20,000 (future uncertain)
Volksbuhne Fullscreen
Number of productions:
New (2017): 20

Repertoire (2017): 55
Co-productions: 0 (2017); 8 (2018, planned)
Additional events: 10
Audience figures (2016): 167,901
Staff: 227.5 permanent, plus six apprentices
Turnover (2016): €18.5 million (£16.3 million) public funding from the federal state of Berlin; €3 million (£2.6 million) received in ticket sales, donations and other income
Key contact: Johannes Ehmann, head of press; johannes.ehmann@volksbuehne-berlin.de
Website: volksbuehne.berlin [2]

Theatertreffen’s role as a barometer of German theatre

While it is primarily a showcase for the best German-language drama, the Berlin festival is also a forum for heated industry debate

Am Konigsweg is inspired by the election of Donald Trump. Photo: Arno Declair [3]
Am Konigsweg is inspired by the election of Donald Trump. Photo: Arno Declair

This May, the 55th annual Theatertreffen Berlin honours the past year’s 10 best productions from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, inviting them to be restaged in the German capital. Nominated by a jury of seven industry professionals who view productions all year round, the selection attempts to capture the essence and breadth of contemporary German theatre.

This year, some well-established theatremakers’ work is recognised, including Frank Castorf’s version of Goethe’s Faust and Thomas Ostermeier’s Return to Reims [4] for the Schaubuhne. Ostermeier is known to London audiences through productions of Hamlet and Richard III, [5] which had short runs at the Barbican.

Refreshingly, an array of younger and more diverse voices is also being showcased this year. The black, female theatremaker Anta Helena Recke, who works in Munich but was based in London for a decade, has been invited to present a piece that brings the neglected issue of black representation on German stages to the fore.

Her production of Mittelreich, a dark musical theatre piece, at Munich’s Kammerspiele is an almost perfect copy of Anna-Sophie Mahler’s 2015 production at the same theatre. By replacing the original’s all-white cast with actors of colour at a theatre in the heart of conservative Bavaria, the director’s appropriation technique throws up questions of inequality both in theatre and in wider society.

Karin Henkel’s Loot. Women. War, a feminist reworking of Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Aulis, has also been selected. Already a household name in Germany, Henkel will receive the renowned annual award, Theaterpreis Berlin.

Director Falk Richter has previously taken up arms against the right-wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany), which tried to censor his piece FEAR. This year, his staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s new work Am Konigsweg (‘On the Royal Road’), inspired by the election of Donald Trump, is also part of the Theatertreffen selection.

As well as recognising influential productions, Theatertreffen has long been a forum for conversations about challenges faced by the sector. This usually relates to issues of industry structures and funding via the city theatre model, but sometimes more specific rows come to the fore.

In 2015, for example, Castorf’s loose adaptation of Brecht’s Baal resulted in an injunction against performing the piece by the Brecht estate. To counter the artistic censure in the legal case, Theatertreffen hosted the work, successfully forcing an extra staging as part of the festival.

This year, the Theatertreffen jury has waded into the debate about replacing Castorf at the Volksbuhne with former Tate Modern curator Chris Dercon. The jury nominated both Castorf’s seven-hour Faust and an immersive piece by Vegard Vinge, an enfant terrible associated with the Volksbuhne. This is both a homage to a quarter-century of Castorf’s post-dramatic aesthetics of excess and a critical riposte to the failed attempt to regenerate the Volksbuhne through local cultural politics.

In its role as a producer of debate, the festival does more than simply survey the state of the German theatre industry. It shows that in Berlin, theatre is never just about the plays.

Theatertreffen Berlin [6] takes place from May 4 to 21

Theatertreffen 2017 review – ‘bold, challenging and provocative’ [7]